Friday, December 2, 2011

"No Man Feels Time"

        “NO MAN FEELS TIME” greeted me as I approached the steps of the Ha’penny Bridge in Dublin this summer. The quotation from the Roman poet Lucretius, part of an international art exhibit, struck me as prophetic as I stepped onto the bridge. Built in 1816, it was the first iron bridge in Ireland and for more than a century (until 1919) cost a half-penny to cross. Its famous cast iron railings and ornamental lamps are themselves relics of the past. I crossed the River Liffey and stepped through Merchants Arch, then on into Crown Alley and the cobblestone streets of the area known today as Temple Bar on the site of an 8th century Viking settlement.

          No one may in fact feel time, but we can all-too-often see its ravages. Places have a “then” and a “now”, so do people, as aging reminds us. And we can surely feel its effects, as when we’re overtired or when traveling across time zones, gaining or losing five hours on a flight between New York and Ireland, for example. Still, it’s hard to wrap our minds around the idea of time itself. Some will claim that we can hear time in the tick of a clock or in the ageless rhythm of the waves. But silence, I think, is the real sound of time. Always present, ever changing, always now/always then, its passage occurs unobtrusively, ceaselessly, soundlessly. Even the ticking of a clock fades away into white noise at times, and we no longer hear it. Perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to lose track of time, to be unaware of its passing.

Down through the ages people have attempted to measure time by the position of the sun or the moon; with sundials and clocks; in nanoseconds, seconds, minutes, hours, days; or weeks, months, years, decades, and centuries; even eras, eons, and onward to infinity.  For several decades now, young people have grown up with a different conception of time than their parents had. Growing up in a "digital" world where "the time" is flashed to them on the LED displays of digital watches, clocks, and now phones, many can't "tell time" on an analog clock--they simply never learned to decipher time that way.  I wonder if this is altering their sense of "time" itself as they're more inclined to perceive time as the single moment that is announcing its LED presence to them at any given instant, and are less likely to grasp the sense of past and future time that reading an analog clockface affords.

However we "tell" time, we like to speak of it in linear terms, even think of it that way, in the sense of time past, time present, and time yet to come, like Scrooge’s fearsome visions of the three Christmas Spirits. I prefer to think of time, however, as a more circular pattern—not so much like the movement of the hands on an analog clock, but rather like a looping of time backward and forward upon itself. This is evident in the perennial cycle of the seasons, or in history so often repeating itself, or even in the recurrence of family resemblances and behaviors across generations. But suppose time is just another dimension, after all. Suppose all times exist simultaneously, here and now, then and forever. In fusing space and time in his idea of the spacetime continuum, Albert Einstein discovered that our conception of time as past, present, and future is a mere illusion. Perhaps that is, in part, why I find the idea of an afterlife so appealing: I see it as merely another dimension, the hereafter, though I hardly think that’s what Einstein had in mind. Yet I’m reminded once again of Faulkner’s line, "The past is never dead. It's not even past,” and note how prophetic it seems to me now. 

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Tuesday, August 2, 2011


One day when I was a boy of nine or ten, I became acutely aware of borders. My brother Gerard and I went along for the ride to visit Jimmy and Philip Coyle's grandmother in Pelham Manor, New York, a small suburban community surrounded by The Bronx on the south, Mt. Vernon on the west, Pelham on the north, and New Rochelle on the east. I was intrigued to discover that we entered Grandmother Coyle's front door in Pelham Manor and exited her back door in The Bronx, that somewhere within the house we could actually be in two places at once. How fascinating that seemed.
Where one place or time ends and another begins—that line of demarcation—still seems somewhat mystical to me. When the clock strikes midnight a new day starts, and on January 31st, the new year. I think of Janus, the roman god of doorways and entrances—with one head looking backward,the other forward—after whom January is named. With a view to both past and future simultaneously, Janus is fittingly regarded as a symbol of transitions, of those threshold places and moments that so richly represent the passages in our lives, those twilight places and moments when something is no longer quite one thing but not yet another. When does the evening end and the night begin? It’s a subtle shifting at best. As the day itself arrives in darkness and will not dawn for hours to come, so too we ease our way through most transitions in our lives, eventually leaving the old behind in order to give birth to the new. But borders attempt to define what is and to contain it, thereby designating what it is not, by denoting all that lies beyond.
We mark birthdays with a sense that we are no longer "x" but are now "y," elatedly when we are young, and—for most—less enthusiastically as the years recede behind us. And yet, we tend to age with a gradual easing into the years that await us, usually too busy to notice that time is leading us across a series of “borders.” “Life is what happens to you,” John Lennon wrote, “while you're busy making other plans.” Perhaps that’s why we rely so on rituals to mark the passages in our lives, to take time to acknowledge, to celebrate, to notice those occasions: births, baptisms, and birthdays; bar/bat mitzvahs, confirmations; drivers licenses and commencements; engagements, marriages, and divorces; retirements, anniversaries, deaths—passages all, borders from one place in our lives to another. And every one in its own right worthy of notice.

Monday, April 25, 2011

"A Terrible Beauty Is Born"

Ninety-five years ago this day, Irish rebels took to the streets of Dublin in the Easter Rising of 1916. Against insurmountable odds, the insurrection was doomed to fail militarily, yet it was destined to change the fate of Ireland as a nation. Padraic Pearse foremost among the leaders knew that the times had called at last for the fire of sacrifice. James Connolly's Citizen Army provided the tinder, the capture of Roger Casement, the spark. Who else among the mass of men knew that all was about to "change utterly"? Who knew?

The hapless fanatics who had drilled in the streets and hills for weeks before the Rising had been scorned by their fellow citizens as hopeless dreamers. Then, after the British began shelling the city center in response to the Rising, the rebels had disrupted the course of the daily routine in Dublin. How were people to get to work? How were they to carry on with their lives? What price would they all now pay for this foolish insurrection? What price, indeed?

The rest is written in the blood of history that tells of how the British executed most of the leaders of the Rising, shooting them against a wall in the yard of Dublin's Kilmainham Gaol, propping up in a chair the wounded James Connolly so they could riddle him with bullets. Then with thoughtless arrogance, how they dumped into mass graves the corpses, thereby desecrating the graves of Irishmen and making martyrs of them all.

In the ninety-five years that have come and gone since then, the poet Yeats has said it best, all is "changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born." Years of guerrilla warfare by the Irish Republican Army followed under the banner of Sinn Fein, "Ourselves Alone." From 1920-22, the Irish were subjected to the hated reprisals of the Black and Tans, but in 1921, Ireland negotiated a degree of independence for twenty-six of its counties as the Irish Free State, at the cost of relegating to the British the six most Protestant counties of the northern part of the island, what became known as Northern Ireland. A cruel and bitter civil war over that treaty ensued, with the pro-treaty forces eventually winning out. In 1949 Ireland declared the Republic of Ireland, severing all political ties between Britain and the twenty-six counties. Northern Ireland remains under British rule to this day.

As Ireland now looks forward to the centennial of the Easter Rising in five more years, it is with a glance both backward and forward, with a nod to the hopes and promise of 1916, and a yearning for the eventual economic independence and reunification of all Ireland through peaceful means that are surely their destiny.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Reunion

It is remarkable how much of our past we carry with us. Faulkner's memorable line from Requiem for a Nun rings true here: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." My wife, Rita, and I drove recently from New York to Waukesha, Wisconsin, to reunite with three friends she hadn't seen in the forty years since they had roomed together in Dublin. Back then, in 1970, the girls were all in their early twenties, a young, adventurous, and innocent time. Today many of their children are older than they were then. Yet, in the words of Tennyson's Ulysses, "Tho' much is taken, much abides," and in the moment that brought them all together again after all those years, sparks of instant recognition rekindled their joy in each others' presence, and they seemed to pick up where they had left off forty years ago.

Christine and Priscilla had organized the reunion. At Christine's invitation, Rita and I had driven the 950 miles to surprise Mag and her husband, Mattie, on their arrival at The Pub in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, halfway between Madison and Milwaukeea, a little gem of an Irish pub run by Aelred and Bernie Gannon, from Sligo, Ireland. It was Mag and Mattie's first trip to America, and the moment was memorable all around. Mattie and Mag arrived with her sister Priscilla and her husband Jeff. Christine and Rita approached and reveled in the moment of instant recognition as the four of them embraced, together again for the first time since 1970. They had kept in touch, more or less, over the years through Christine with notes at Christmas, but this moment, their first time together in forty years, was special. The party at the pub, driven by a lively Irish session with Priscilla on the button accordian, Mattie on the guitar, Aelred on the tin whistle, and countless other musicians joining, and slipping away, lasted well into the early hours of the morning before we headed back to Waukesha for the night.

What struck me was how much Christine, Priscilla, Mag, and Rita still enjoyed each others' company, the sheer delight in their eyes evident as they beheld the strong women they had become. They peppered the days and nights that followed with stories of their days together in Dublin and tales of their lives apart, with songs and videos and family photos to share. They even reminisced about a red Irish linen coat that Rita had designed and drafted for Christine, who then sewed it up all those years ago in Dublin. An hour or so later Christine made a grand entrance in the same coat, which still fit her, if a little snuggly. Both the fabric and the style had held up as well in the intervening years as had their friendship. It is indeed remarkable how much of our past we carry with us, like coals smoldering under a layer of ash, a fire just waiting to be rekindled

Friday, March 4, 2011

Skate Keys, Valises, and Things No Longer So

It seems odd that anyone growing up in the last four decades is so thoroughly unacquainted with many everyday items that were commonplace in my childhood. Or at least with the words that described them.

Ask someone below the age of 40 what a skate key is, and you'll be met with a bovine stare. Try as you might to describe it, they won't have a clue. You'll get much the same reaction to "valise," the word commonly used to refer to a small suitcase in my childhood during the 1950s. But--curiously--"skate key" and "valise" puzzle recent generations in different ways: skate keys no longer exist, while "valises" are merely called by another name.

An ongoing list of other items that no longer exist: rotary phones, hair nets, The New York Mirror and The Journal American newspapers, fountain pens with plunger, inkwells, blotting paper, bus passes, double feature movies, soapbox scooters, High Mass & Low Mass, draft cards, car running boards, rubber galoshes with metal clasps, the 5 & 10, Kodak Brownie Hawkeye cameras, black and white tv, glass Coke bottles, oilcloth,

An ongoing list of other items now called by a different name: counterpane/bedspread, dungarees/jeans, bedstead/bed frame,

Saturday, January 15, 2011

September 2010

Having just retired in June, this was the first September in 56 years that I was not returning to school. In 1954, my mother's hand securely in mine, we walked the streets of the South Bronx as I headed off to school for the first time. This strange new environment with its long corridors and strange antiseptic smells was to become familiar each September, in one form or another, for more than half a century to come. From grammar school, to high school, on to college and graduate schools, then through forty years of teaching, September has always signaled for me, Janus-like, both the end of a glorious summer and a new beginning tinged with both eagerness and apprehension.

The year, of course, had its seasons, from tumbling autumn leaves that crunched underfoot each Halloween amid the masks of fall; to Thanksgiving with its brisk, chill winds; then the long, frenzied anticipation of Christmas and the revelry of New Year's Eve. The long dark nights of January gave way to red-hearted fancies on Valentine's Day, and St. Patrick's Day parades then heralded the spring, soon followed by April rains and Easter blooms. The warmth of May made winter but a distant memory, and June heralded the approach of summer once again. July and August melted into long, lazy days of balmy reverie. Then September, with all of its schedules, routines, renewal, and promise, came round once more.

But this year, this September of 2010, was to be different. To mark the month that I would not be returning to school, and I suppose to afford something of a distraction from that long-ingrained routine, my wife and I booked a trip to Ireland for the first three weeks in September. I was in Dublin on the first day of classes back in New York, and I lifted a pint to my former colleagues, and toasted all the Septembers past and those yet to come. Something tells me it just may be the start of a new tradition.

Chloe´Colette Kersting

Chloe´ Colette Kersting, born on November 18, 2010

From Blog pics
Becoming a grandfather is like walking through a memory with eyes wide open. The instinct to love and nurture is still intact; the weight of the infant in my arms, so long forgotten, is yet familiar; and dreams for this babe unfold in endless hope.

Her father's features in her face are winsome and uncanny: the puckering lower lip precedes a cry, the rapt gaze absorbs the world about her. And in her smile I see her mother too, the joy echoing in her eyes, with just enough of the "divil" to rouse some mischief in the years to come. Then there is the soft contented sigh when she is fed and swaddled and so thoroughly dependent upon the love that surrounds her, the love that in the end will last a lifetime. 

So here I am once more cradling an infant in my arms, but this time it is our little girl that I hold, our Chloe´, and already I cherish the stories untold, the songs unsung, the books unread, the tops unspun, all memories still to be made. And I get to dream dreams yet undreampt for this little girl of ours, for they are grandpa dreams, and lifting to the sky on the wings of love, they know no bounds.